Rediscovering America(na)

4 11 2008

It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music
By Amanda Petrusich
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 2008, 304 pages, $25.00

Review by Derek Beres

During her interview with Larry Singleton, the man who picks all the décor for the Lebanon, Tennessee-based Cracker Barrel chain, music journalist Amanda Petrusich distills the muse of her life—the quest for Americana—down to its essence: “Singleton is peddling earnestness, industriousness, and faith, trying his hardest to ‘remind’ us of a time when life was less virtual; the fact that our memories of these objects and eras are entirely fabricated has little to do with his endgame. Even if we’ve never baked our own bread or churned our own butter—even if we’re deeply skeptical that ‘simpler times’ have ever really existed for human beings on planet Earth—we still understand, immediately, what these tools are meant to represent.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the very question that led her to write her latest book, It Still Moves—“What does Americana look like?”—was not found at a folk festival or sitting in her Brooklyn apartment reviewing the latest Wilco or Calexico records, but by watching several of those 500+ infamous red barn stores whiz by on her interstate travels. Cracker Barrel does indeed bring us warm-hearted memories of the old days that never existed for most of us. The company magically conjures images of calling the family dog inside while the rainstorm barrels over the fields, or the smell of crisp, baked apple pies wafting in the autumnal breeze. Where or why we have these images is altogether another question, yet certain stores—like Cracker Barrel—make a killing from the impulse.

Yet Petrusich’s real question isn’t what Americana looks like, but what it sounds like. And this is a question she is most ready to, if not answer, then at least explore in-depth. She is a passionate writer whose love for music shines through on every page. As she explains early on, she is not concerned with how many records are sold or what tactics artists use in the studio. Her approach is more intangible, hence more emotionally tactile: Who are these people creating this music? What are their dreams, ambitions, philosophies? We can hear the result of their craft. What is the foundation of their songs? This is, in large part, what makes this book so enjoyable—the people behind the songs, not to mention her own personal perceptions of what goes on behind her scenes.

And it is a refreshing approach, especially in a time when most anyone can publish a book (last year, over 400,000 new titles hit shelves and websites in America alone), and the majority of this literary landslide lands in the most egregious and mundane genre imaginable: memoirs. It takes a keen eye (and pen) to write your own story for the greater good of the topic matter; Petrusich nails it. Indeed, it is embedded in her subject matter’s philosophy. As she writes early on, “most traditional Americana music is produced without much concern for its commercial potential”. During the story that unfolds thereafter, her thesis is proven over and again.

Read the full review on PopMatters.

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